Every student in my high school knows that junior year means Junior Retreat. It means class bonding, T-shirt making, and the fabled candlelight ceremony. No one knows the details, as teachers who organize it try to keep it secret, but we all know that it is on the horizon. I know that the candlelight ceremony is my chance to come out to my classmates. There is an email in my draft box to my parents, explaining that I am transgender. I send it. I hand my phone to Dr. O’Loughlin, my math teacher, and I get on the bus. I look at my friend Andrew, and we exchange a knowing look. This retreat will change my life.
There are tears on my classmates’ faces, makeup-smeared tissues balled between fists and held hands. A table of lit tea candles stands at the front of the room, my guidance counsellor Ms. Short next to it, her face solemn yet empathetic. Students rise and hug and cry and laugh and leave the room. I am still sitting, clenching Andrew’s hand with one fist and a tissue with the other. Tears blur my vision, and eyeliner and contour streak my cheeks. I eventually will myself to stand up and greet people.
I walk down the aisle between rows of chairs once occupied by juniors. I am immediately scooped up into a hug by a boy much taller and thinner than I. He is a friend; I identify him as Paul by the shirt, the glasses, the tousled brown hair. Paul doesn’t hug me normally. Paul doesn’t hug anyone normally. But now, he squeezes me harder than I ever thought possible for his thin frame. Just as I think my tears had ended, they rush back at once and I start sobbing again. Through my sobs I hear him say to me “It’s so good to finally use your name, Leo.” He is hunched over so he can hug me. My face rests on his collarbone, his chin on my shoulder. This embrace lasts a lifetime, or thirty seconds, or both.
Our hug breaks and I am swiftly engulfed by people I am friends with, people who I was friends with, and people I barely know. Madame Kerman approaches me, then Dr. O’Loughlin. I thank him for all he’s done for me. He’s believed in me for months, even when I didn’t believe in myself. So I thank him.
I walk outside into the spring evening, and come across the bonfire my teachers have arranged. Students sit around the rising flames, roasting marshmallows as they share their stories and sentiments of pain. A boy who was sexually assaulted tells me that he is proud of me. A girl who tried to kill herself gives me a lingering hug. Eventually, I meet up with a friend, a friend I had made not a month earlier, and we wander away from the group of students. We talk about how our lives have changed so drastically in the past year. He started at a new school, and I have been through heartbreak and depression and so much more. As we meander, our classmates pass us and make a point to call me Leo. Each time they do, I almost cry again.
“How do you feel?” he asks me.
“More loved than ever before.”
Leo Bukovsan is a senior at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in Minnesota. He is transgender and works through art and activism to destroy transphobia in his community.
Edited by Mimi Frotten.